The Admirable Alligator (Part 1)

Alligators are all over the place here in Florida. It is estimated that 1,250,000 alligators live in the freshwater ponds, lakes, rivers, canals and marshes around the state. They've even been known to show up in people's swimming pools from time to time. With males typically growing to about 10 feet, and females to 8 feet, they can be a little intimidating.

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I think most people are at least intrigued by alligators, but with their potential to be dangerous, some people are not fans. I admire alligators! Here's why:


Alligators have a long history of success

Alligators are close cousins of dinosaurs. When most of the dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, alligators survived. They haven't changed much since then, indicating they are exceptionally well adapted to their environment.


Alligators are very good looking

Alligators have a beautiful complexion that ranges from a dark olive color to nearly black depending on whether they live in water that has more algae or tannins. Their underside is a lovely creamy color. (Unlike the cute stuffed toys you see in souvenir shops, alligators are not bright green.) Furthermore, alligators have very nice smiles with 70-80 white, pointy teeth. If they happen to break a tooth during an especially crunchy meal, they just grow a replacement. No dentures needed. An alligator can go through up to 3,000 teeth in its lifetime!

Alligator showing off its lovely smile and the beautiful cream colored skin on its underside.

Alligator showing off its lovely smile and the beautiful cream colored skin on its underside.

Alligators are armor-plated

Their skin is covered in hard scales called scutes. These are made of keratin - the same tough material horns and hooves are made of. Beneath their skin are little bits of bone called osteoderms. Each of the little spikes you see on an alligator is formed by an osteoderm.

The squarish scaly things on this alligator's back are the scutes. The raised ridges are where there is an osteoderm underneath the skin.

The squarish scaly things on this alligator's back are the scutes. The raised ridges are where there is an osteoderm underneath the skin.

Alligators are energy-efficient

The scutes on alligators' skin act like little solar panels, enabling them to absorb heat from the sun. When you see alligators enjoying a nice afternoon of sunbathing, they are recharging their batteries. Other reptiles become inactive after the sun goes down, but alligators use that stored heat to maintain a higher metabolic rate so they can hunt after dark.

Alligators recharging their batteries.

Alligators recharging their batteries.

Alligators are athletic

Alligators are excellent swimmers. They use their powerful tails to propel themselves through the water at up to 20 miles per hour, although they're not usually in that much of a hurry. They can stay underwater for around 10 minutes if they are actively moving about, and up to several hours if they are napping. They can see where they are going underwater because they have a second eyelid called a nictitating membrane that acts a bit like swim goggles.  

While alligators are most at home in the water, they can also move quickly on land, if necessary. Alligators escaping a threat can run as fast as 12 miles per hour over short distances. That's a 5-minute mile pace. Not many humans can do that, so it's best not to get in a race with an alligator!

Alligator out for a leisurely swim.

Alligator out for a leisurely swim.

Alligators leave a distinctive track when they stroll through the mud.

Alligators leave a distinctive track when they stroll through the mud.

Alligators do not bring unnecessary drama to their romantic relationships

In Florida, alligator courtship usually begins in April. That's when you might hear some bellowing and tail-slapping, and see male alligators wandering around the neighborhood. Special glands near their tail emit alluring scents that attract members of the opposite sex. After a brief (ahem) romantic moment in shallow water, the male moves on without a dramatic break-up.

This alligator is bellowing for a mate. While you can't tell from the photo, I will say it was very, very loud, generating responding bellows from over 1/4 mile away.

This alligator is bellowing for a mate. While you can't tell from the photo, I will say it was very, very loud, generating responding bellows from over 1/4 mile away.

Alligators are good mothers

Two months after the romantic encounter, the female will build a nest by mounding 2-3 feet of earth and plant material near the water. She will lay 30-50 eggs in a depression on top of the mound, then close it up. The eggs are a little bigger than a chicken egg. As the plant materials rot, they generate heat that helps keep the nest at just the right temperature for incubation. Mom stays near the nest until the eggs hatch - especially at night when raccoons like to dine on alligator eggs. After the eggs incubate for about 65 days, the baby alligators begin to hatch. When she hears them yelping, Mom helps them out of the nest, sometimes carrying them in her mouth to the water. The newly hatched babies are about 8-9 inches long, and have bright yellow bands that help camouflage them in the reeds. Alligators in the wild grow at a little less than a foot a year until they are about 7 years old, when their growth slows down.

Mother alligator keeping close watch on her baby. Notice how the baby's stripes help it blend in with the reeds.

Mother alligator keeping close watch on her baby. Notice how the baby's stripes help it blend in with the reeds.

Alligators fight for survival

While adult alligators are designed to be fierce predators, they certainly don't start life that way. When they hatch, they are self-sufficient and begin foraging right away for insects, small fish, frogs, crabs, crayfish and other invertebrates. However, baby alligators are preyed upon by otters, raccoons, large-mouth bass, herons, egrets, wood storks, snakes, Florida panthers, and sadly, their own fathers. Even though mom keeps a close eye on them for a year or two, fewer than half of the babies that hatch will survive for a year. Only about one in five will make it to maturity (6 feet long).

You can see this baby alligator already has a nice set of choppers to help it catch prey.

You can see this baby alligator already has a nice set of choppers to help it catch prey.

More babies. I think they're adorable. A raccoon or great blue heron would think they're delicious.

More babies. I think they're adorable. A raccoon or great blue heron would think they're delicious.

Coming in Part 2: Now that we have covered some basic alligator anatomy and have gotten our baby alligators through childhood, it's time to explore the very important role adult alligators play as predators and engineers. Part 2 of The Admirable Alligator is coming soon!



DID YOU KNOW?


Alligators do not have sex chromosomes.

Instead, their sex is determined by a process biologists call TSD - Temperature-sensitive Sex Determination. If the eggs incubate at a temperature between 90° and 93°F, they will be males. Between 82° and 86°F, they will be females. At temperatures in the middle (87°-89°F), the brood will be a mixture of males and females. Eggs that incubate below 82° or above 93°F won't hatch.  


Alligators are a population recovery success story

Alligators were nearly hunted to extinction because of their attractive hides and tasty tail meat. After being put on the endangered species list in 1967, they made an amazing comeback. Alligators are no longer considered an endangered species, but trade of alligators and alligator products is still regulated, and hunting is allowed on a limited basis by permit only.



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